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The assassination of Fr. Jose Reynel Restrepo

by John Dear SJ

See video

(editors note: This was originally posted at the Catholic paper but was taken down with this notice: "After receipt of objections on behalf of Gran Columbia Gold Corp., we have taken down a column by Fr. John Dear, “The Assassination of Fr. Jose Reynal Restrepo” pending further investigation.")

Fr. Jose Reynel Restrepo, the 36 year old pastor of the Catholic Church in the town of Marmato in Colombia, was assassinated Sept. 1. He was riding his motorcycle through the countryside on his way home after visiting his family when he was stopped and shot dead.

A few days before, Restrepo had publicly condemned the mammoth Canadian/Colombian mining company "Gran Colombia Gold" for their plan to wipe out his entire parish and town. The week before, he had traveled to Bogota to meet with government officials to prevent the mind-boggling injustice.

This evil behemoth, Gran Colombia Gold, along with the Colombia government, was going to force the entire town of Marmato to move from its ancient present location. Founded in 1540, Marmato has a population of 10,000 people. It is one of the historic gold-mining regions of the hemisphere.

After the residents of Marmato were displaced, Gran Colombia Gold was going to dig a new open-pit gold mine in its place -- and make a fortune. Canadian mining in Colombia is favored by the so-called "Free Trade Agreement" between Canada and Colombia, and like evil U.S.-Colombian multinational partnerships, wreaks havoc upon the poor rural communities.

I suppose such outlandish injustice doesn't even come as a surprise anymore. It's almost taken for granted.

For years, I have been following with my friends the terrible situation in Colombia. Alas, it's not uncommon for activists -- and even priests -- to be assassinated for speaking out against these mining companies, multinational corporations, and U.S. military presence.

This summer, scores of activists were killed in Colombia and the world looks the other way.

Sept. 12, ten days after the murder of Restrepo, another priest, Fr. Gualberto Antonio Oviedo Arrieta, whose parish was in Capurganá (Chocó), was murdered. A dedicated servant of the poor, he was killed by being cut to pieces with a machete. He is now the sixth Catholic priest to be killed in Colombia this year alone. The reason for his murder is not known, but most suspect it is because of his work defending the poor.

The Bishops of Colombia have issued a statement expressing "sadness and concern" that six priests have been murdered this year.

"[This is] a very worrying figure which shows the state of degradation in our society," said Mgr. Juan Vincent Cordoba Villota, Auxilliary Bishop of Bucaramanga and General Secretary of the Colombian Episcopate.

As the world begins to run out of fossil fuels, the killing of anti-mining activists may be becoming a new global trend. Another young priest was assassinated a few months ago in a remote area of the Philippines, similar to Restrepo -- for speaking out against a mining company that was going to move his entire town.

In Marmato, residents objected to Gran Colombia Gold's plan as soon as they heard about it. Of course, the large historic church and all their homes would be razed to the ground, but it would also end their livelihood. The plan would close down their small-scale artisan mining in the highland area.

This small-scale mining has been going on there since the Spanish conquest and, according to the mayor, provides employment for more than 2,000 local miners, upon whose earnings the whole town depends. Years ago, the Colombian government agreed to protect the highlands of Marmato for this small-scale mining, while it developed mining projects in the nearby lowlands. Now the Colombian government has thrown out that agreement to allow the new open-pit mine for the Canadian/Colombian mining company.

Enter Father Jose. Last month, the mining company asked him to support the new open-pit mine and to move his parish and rectory to the newly fabricated town and offer Mass there. They thought that if the popular priest moved, the people would move, too. He refused.

Then they announced that the diocese had sold his parish! So he went to Bogota to investigate these plans and to speak out against the evil Gran Colombia Gold Mine plan. A few days later, his dead body was found along a dirt road. Of course, the government and the media say he was mugged.

Gran Colombia Gold issued a statement saying, "We hope the authorities will fully investigate this crime and swiftly establish what took place. The company reiterates our complete rejection of any acts of violence."

It's hard to hear the specific cries of the poor when thousands of human beings are being killed every week around the world. Through new forms of communication, however, more and more of us are learning the details of global injustice. Oppressed peoples everywhere are finding new ways to speak out and call for global solidarity.

Knowing that he had the sympathy of the world's peace and justice movements, Restrepo spoke out on You Tube. His interview was posted with English subtitles on August 28, 2011, four days before his assassination. I urge everyone to take a few minutes to listen to Holy Martyr Fr. Jose Reynel Restrepo talk about what is happening in Marmato.

In the video, we hear from the local miners speaking about their peaceful village, their lifelong struggle in the gold mines, and the U.S.-backed government which harasses them. Then smiling young Fr. Jose appears, speaking about the need to resist the mining company.

What a revelation to see and hear this young priest speak calmly and peacefully about his own death. He says he has a choice. He does not have to leave; he can just die.

"They will have to kill me with bullets or machetes to get me out of there," he says. The people must likewise give their lives to resist the mining company, he concludes with a smile. Four days later he was dead.

Thousands of dedicated organizers, activists, and churchworkers have been killed in Colombia in recent years, but what is unusual here is that we have a powerful YouTube video of Father Jose, just four days before his death. We can see and hear for ourselves what this martyr says.

With all the widespread media publicity about corrupt priests, bishops and cardinals, it's also a revelation to see and hear an authentic, friendly young priest speak so eloquently on behalf of the poor. He seems to know he is going to be killed, because that's what he talks about, and he smiles as he calmly explains that they will have to kill him. I, for one, see him as a true follower of the nonviolent Jesus.

"The church is a defender of the poor," he says. "The church declares itself in defense of the poor, and the small scale miners of Marmato are at real risk of losing their jobs in this situation ... The company doesn't provide them with an alternative to their jobs because the company wants to use open-pit mining, displacing the population and exploiting this area in a short period of time."

"I met Father Reynel Restrepo a few days before his murder," writes prominent Colombian peace movement leader Ana Teresa Bernal. "He had come to Bogota from Marmato with a delegation of miners, municipal council members and the Mayor, to ask for help, because his dear, historic town was going to be moved so that a Canadian multinational corporation could build an open-pit mine to remove the gold which lies below the town. And this was going to happen without their having ever been consulted or taken into account. They told me that they were going to make the communications media aware of this situation, and bring it to the attention of all sectors of society, because they were not going to permit this mining development to happen."

What can we do? My friends at the Colombia Support Network [3] have launched an Urgent Action program about the situation in Marmato -- here's the specific link[4]. They suggest we send letter and emails to Colombian government officials demanding an investigation into the killing of Fr. Jose and the immediate halt of all mining plans to destroy Marmato.

They also suggest we call Gran Colombia Gold at their headquarters at 333 Bay Street in downtown Toronto and ask them about the death of Restrepo and to stop their evil plans to destroy Marmato. I called their communications representative, Mr. Peter Volk, but he did not return my call.

Many Canadian social justice organizations have done great solidarity work for human rights in Colombia over the past years, such as KAIROS Canada [5] and the Catholic Canadian Development and Peace organization [6]. Just last Thursday night, KAIROS Canada, Amnesty International and others held a demonstration in Toronto to protest a reception to honor the President of Colombia with a peace award.

Last May, KAIROS Canada hosted an ecumenical conference on mining which brought together over 150 people from all over the world, including 50 people from Latin America, Asia and the Pacific and Africa, to consider the impact of Canadian mining on their local communities. The conference statement called for "greater and more committed solidarity and accompaniment of communities directly affected by Canadian mining."

The statement concludes by calling on "the Canadian churches and churches globally, to take responsibility in speaking out more publicly on the issues and concerns raised during the gathering. It is with grief and deep concern that we learn about these ongoing human rights violations and assassinations in areas where Canadian mining companies are operating."

I give thanks for the life and witness of Fr. Jose, and all the martyrs of Colombia, and all those struggling to resist the injustice and killings that happen there because of North American corporate greed and militarism.

I hope we can ponder the message of Fr. Jose, hear the cry of the poor, offer some solidarity with them, and continue to take a stand as best we can for justice and peace everywhere.








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